The world is in crisis and humankind is searching for its next class of leaders. But how do we cultivate powerful, empathetic activists? Meet Seane Corn, co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World, and an advocate for turning inward as the first step in reaching out. For more than a decade Seane has been leading workshops connecting practices such as yoga and meditation with effective leadership. Now she is also teaching a new Commune course, "Redefining Leadership," on onecommune.com.
Jeff: You've developed a lot of thinking around leadership so I'd start with the basic question of what are the essential characteristics of great leadership?
Seane: I think that leadership should never be kind of mulled down to a specific common denominator because then that will eliminate so many people from feeling as if they have the ability or the skills to be able to be effective in their leadership because they're not this one thing. I know for myself in my leadership, I have self confidence and for me that has been helpful because it allows me to take certain emotional hits that doesn't get in the way of me being able to do what I know in my heart is the right thing to do to be in service, whether it's in service to my community, to this nation, or to God, I know who I am, I know what my purpose is, and I know when I'm being asked to contribute to, and my self confidence doesn't let me waiver off of that.
So if someone has a point of view that interferes with my own vision, it's not that I don't investigate, but my confidence doesn't allow me to become passive to their perspective. So that's in my leadership, confidence is very important, but that doesn't mean that someone who doesn't have that kind of confidence can't be a leader and utilize some of the talents that they have that might not be so overt.
Jeff: Yeah, so this brings up an interesting question for me and I grapple with this often around leadership is because to cultivate your leadership qualities I think one needs to cultivate kind of the best version of themselves often and to really get to that place of compassion where they're actually recognizing other people's opinion in equal proportion to their own, and at the same time though a leader must sometimes be like undaunted, how do you recognize the humanity in someone that you disagree vehemently with and also then lead against potentially what they believe in?
So for example, a white supremacist, how do you actually walk in to a situation with someone like that where you're coming from your highest self, in essence being able to recognize their humanity, and that they're in some ways maybe doing the best they can with the tools that they've been given as a human, but on the other hand stand in incredible opposition to what their actions are and what they may believe about race. How do you balance those two things?
Seane: I think your question, especially right now and especially in the context of the spirituality in the wellness communities is absolutely an essential one to grapple with and that's really what has to happen. It must be grappled with because I know that in my own activism for years I was against something and it took unpacking and understanding my own shadow to recognize that I was participating then in the very thing that I wanted to heal, which was the separation, that I needed to find something that I was for and in theory this all makes sense, but when you're in the presence of hate and when you're in the presence of a perspective that is actually demonstrating a perpetuated violence against people, people that you perhaps love, people who are directly affected by that particular point of view, unless you have some real skills for self regulation, it's almost unbearable and it's almost predictable that you will get triggered, that you will react, that you're probably going to do exactly what they want you to do, which is to become overwhelmed and hysterical and judgmental, and then there's that divide.
So it's impossible for me to say here's what you do, here's the game plan. All I can do for myself is to look at the ways in which I have exhibited those characteristics, maybe not as extreme, but where is it within myself that has participated in creating separation? Where did I learn that from? What is the addiction to it, the trauma that surrounds it?
And if I can develop a certain amount of empathy for the resonance, for the energy that motivates someone to hold onto that judgment, it's helpful that when I'm in that relationship I need to know what are my triggers going to be and when they do or say something that is going to predictably trigger me, how do I stay in my body, how do I breathe, how do I stay resourced, how do I recognize also when harm is being created and I am no longer in a position where I'm going to get heard or met and if that's the case, how do I get out of the situation? You have to know what your capacity is.
For example, I have an ability to be able to maintain my center around pimps and people who have severely abused and exploited children. I don't know what it is in my nervous system that allows me to be able to have a conversation with someone who of course on a personality level and an ego level I abhor, perhaps because of my own trauma, perhaps because of my own history of exploitation and abuse and the healing that I've done around it I can engage and see the brokenness in them and the way in which perhaps their own trauma has filtered in to their self expression, but I cannot be in an environment where someone hurts or harms animals. I have no capacity to maintain my center. It becomes all about me. I become very emotional, incredibly reactive.
Therefore, I know that where I need to be in my leadership is in environments where I can maintain and hold my center in the face of that overwhelming conflict, and where I don't need to be is in the places where I do not have the capacity to hold that kind of trauma and hope someone else can.
Jeff: So there's different kinds of leadership styles and capacities that are appropriate for different kinds of situations. For me, I always think of like a couple sort of archetypal leadership styles that I'm always sort of battling with.
One is sort of the humble leader. There's a––Lao-Tzu writes about this quite a bit in the Tao and I'll just read a quote that has always really stuck with me from ... this is the 17th verse of the Tao. “When the master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. If you don't trust people, you make them untrustworthy. The master doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, "Amazing. We did it, all by ourselves."
So he also talks about the ocean as being the most powerful body of water but it's also the lowest body of water and all the streams and creeks and lakes flow into that. Lao-Tzu was saying lead from the bottom, like the ocean. Don't lead from the top. Maintain your humility, don't speak, just act. That is a certain kind of leadership approach and style, and one that's very honestly compelling to me, but also one that sort of flies in the face of more of the kind of modern archetypal leader which is the sort of Steve Jobs-y, hyper creative, super impulsive, maybe somewhat reactive leader.
Is conscious leadership one of those things? Or does everyone really just have to cultivate their own form of leadership?
Seane: I tend to err towards believe it or not the latter, that leadership is creative and it has a myriad of expressions and one is not more correct than another and that I think that right now we need all of these different examples of leadership to be able to be successful in our pursuit for social change and that there is leadership that is more subtle and quiet that empowers from the bottom up and that's instrumental in collective growth and change. Sometimes we need more charismatic leadership that is out there on the front line where other people can sit back and say, "This person is speaking the words that I myself have never even been able to express or understand. I'm motivated," and as a result of that leadership they begin to develop those qualities within themselves. There's purposefulness to it.
I wouldn't reject any form of leadership that's out there. The only form of leadership that's problematic is one where the leadership is about the individual, where it's about themselves. So even if someone is on the front line and they're taking up a lot of space, if that space is in service to the whole and you can feel the authenticity and the sincerity within that individual, I think I'd be right there cheering them on. So I think that to me leadership should and could be broader and more creative.
Jeff: Is a great leader always a servant then, do you think?
Seane: To me, yes.
Seane: As a spiritualist that someone who is deeply committed to being in service first and foremost to God's will and that means truth and love as it radiates from the inside that's reflective of all souls. Everything that I do has to be in service to what that ideal is, which is love. Without that, I have no doubt in my mind I will be motivated by my ego.
Jeff: You talked before about the ability of great leaders to remain grounded and centered and sometimes calm in situations. What is the sort of relationship between, in your opinion between through the spiritual and embodied practices and leadership? Why are those things important?
Seane: Because in leadership there's too many opportunities because of opposition to become reactive based on your own trauma and on your own ego. If you're not eating well, if you're not sustained, if you're tired, hungry, all of that, it creates an environment for reactivity. And once you get into reactivity, you create separation and then you're the problem.
So having a body based practice, meditation, prayer, diet, all these things that create sustainability, allow us that when we're in conflict and crisis, our body will tell us before our ... the words will come out of our mouth if we're about to do or say something that's actually going to create opposition and not positive opposition, but problematic opposition. I can see leaders who are out there that you can just sit back and watch is just a matter of time. The burn out is predictable. You could see it on your their bodies, on their face, and then in time reflected in their words.
So I wouldn't put myself in a position of leadership without committing to an embodied practice so that I can be present to my ego, so I can recognize when I'm in overwhelm, and so that I can begin to gauge. Like I don't know I'm overwhelmed until I'm basically ripping off someone's head. Like the line is so thin. When I'm doing embodied practices, it lets me know like, "Oh, you're actually stressed right now. You're actually angry right now. You're actually sad right now." And it gets me present to those more subtle determining factors that impact the way in which we communicate.
So I would love to see all leadership having some kind of a practice that gets them in their body, in their breath, connected to their shadow so that they don't take that compressed or contracted energy into their leadership and into the work they're doing in the world.
Jeff: Would you say that great leaders create connection, they create yoga, they create union?
Seane: I'd like to think so.
Jeff: At like the core of great leadership. I'm curious, who are the ... your role models for leadership?
Seane: It's really interesting as you're saying this that I don't really think that I've given it an enormous amount of thought in terms of emulating leadership in one way or the other. I never actually made a conscious decision to step into leadership. It's just this evolutionary part of my own yoga process that seemed inevitable in the same way you kind of advance from downward facing dog into hand stance. It's just in time slowly one thing becomes another and the foundation of one thing allows you to elevate into this other thing.
I mean, I think of Angela Davis, I think of Gloria Steinem, I think of Marianne Williamson, obviously women for whatever reason are leaders that I look at. I look at the way they step forward, the way they engage, the use of language, their vulnerability, their willingness to pull the veil back and to hold themselves accountable.
I think I'm attracted to leadership that exhibits those qualities. I think my body stops when I see that because I know internally that the path of yoga and leadership invites me into that particular increase. So when I see someone demonstrating it, a part of me stops, cox my head and is like, "Oh that."
Jeff: Do you think you need to have a sense of what or who god is to be a great leader? And I use god in the broadest sense. A sense of kind of the contents of your infinite soul or however you want to see that, as to give you a sense of what is fundamentally true and good and right.
Seane: I can only answer that question for myself is yes. But I have no doubt in my mind that there are leaders out there that do not believe in god, who are atheists, who are extraordinary in their input. What I would believe though is that I would substitute that word god for love, that I do think that every great leader has to be motivated by love. And to me that's how I interpret god, and that that love is and compassion and empathy that wants to unite, that wants to be in service to all, that wants to see equity and justice, and recognizes the humanity that exists and their responsibility that humanity. Call it what you want, but that love is the thread that will bind and will liberate.
So I think that the leaders that I've responded to. I could feel their compassion and their humanity and their grief for. When I think of Martin Luther King, I just, the grief of people not getting this and recognizing people's determination to continue, to perpetuate bias and prejudgment to the detriment of so many. A leader that is motivated by love is a leader that can truly move the needle and move us towards peace but from the inside out.
Jeff: Are we ready to introduce that word into the public discourse now when our society needs it more than ever? I don't really hear anyone talking at least on the national stage about love. It's sort of an eye roller, where a couple generations ago you had Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy and love was actually part of the national discourse. We can use that word without people being cynical. Is there a room for that word?
Seane: I'd pray. I mean I know there are leaders that absolutely do use it. In the same way that a few years ago we were resistant to talking about racism or power and privilege in the way that we are today.
Seane: All of a sudden it's part of this, the lexicon within our culture that hasn't especially amongst white privileged folk that we haven't really had to look at, but because of everything that's happening it's now up and people are getting more and more comfortable taking ownership of some of this languaging, unpacking it, because for years it was being introduced and introduced and people resisted and they fought it and they rejected it, but it continued to get reintroduced until it became normalized.
My hope is that love would be the same thing, that some leaders just keep putting it out there and letting it rub up against people wrong until it becomes so common place that not to talk about love in the same way that to not talk about racism and not talk about power and privilege, you're just archaic right now in this day and age. It would be the same thing with love.
And so to name it, to own it, to claim it is the only way for us to acclimate to it.
Jeff: What about for young, burgeoning leaders, ummm your students who have all, probably have all the essential ingredients for great leadership, but have also great fear associated with it? Like, "Oh well, my ... Who's going to listen to my opinion," or like, "What can I do in the face of the enormity of the world's problem? That next generation to overcome fear associated with being a great leader?
Seane: One must do the inner work that is necessary to develop the self-confidence. I know that when I start to second guess myself or I allow my own insecurity to come up, there's a little voice in my head that says how dare you allow that insecurity or that doubt get in the way of doing what needs to be done when lives are at stake, especially when I can't, especially when my own life is not at stake, especially if the worst thing that's going to happen is I'm going to take a hit, like I'm going to get insulted, maybe get embarrassed or humiliated. Like in the big picture, can I handle that?
Now maybe 20 years ago, no, I couldn't. But I would know that. I would sit with that and I say, "Well, then you develop that muscle. Then do everything that you can right now in your capacity, do your yoga, go to therapy, cry, rage, scream, utilize these tools to build that muscle, to confront those limited beliefs so that they don't get in the way of leadership."
Jeff: Do you think in a way that you've been able to tame your ego where you're just like, "You know, I'm not what people think of me. So that's okay and because I'm not, I can be brave, and I can be courageous, and I can be vulnerable because I don't care if someone tries to tear me down on Instagram or on Facebook." I see you all the time on social platforms, and people are out there and they're gunning for you sometimes on one thing or another, but you feel, you seem very undaunted by that.
Seane: Yeah. Well, it's not that I'm undaunted. But when I get triggered, I just don't, I don't pick up the cell phone and start typing right away. I have a theory that if I'm activated by something that someone says, there's truth to it, meaning that if I immediately feel defensive by some projection that someone's put out, there might actually be some truth to what's being said and I need to sit with that and peel back before I speak what it's actually true and what's their own projection and see if I can learn something from it and more often than not I can.
I just, I do the work. I sit in the shadow of this, and I also, I put it in perspective. I think of the people in my life whom because of the color of their skin or because of their gender or because of their socioeconomic status that they have no choice but to live every single day threatened or in fear or in lack. They have no choice but to either fight or withdraw.
I have the choice. I don't have to fight if I don't want to, if I'm having that kind of a day, my privilege lets me say like, "Oh, I don't feel like dealing with this today." Like that, I struggle with that internally because I get that. That privilege...Privilege is just simply the luck of the draw and that for me to take a day off because I'm a little overwhelmed and fatigued means that my friends have to fight harder and it's the gift of the privilege again, like I said, is like I can take that hit. The worst thing that's going to happen to me is humiliation, but my life or livelihood will not be compromised or taken away and so my leadership tells me, fluff up your hair, get out there, be a voice for social change, take accountability when it's essential, which I try to. I try to model what it looks like taking ownership. I don't do this well, this work is messy, but I own it and try to normalize that conversation and try not to get defensive and hope that within my leadership people can see that there is a way to navigate these times and both be in the discomfort, take ownership for the way in which I show up, which is in any way unconscious, and act anyway. Lead anyway. And be humble in it without being passive to it.
Jeff: There's something about our time right now where people are just, they're craving "authenticity" and that might in the end have been the difference between the last presidential election, which you know, could have been, there's a million reasons to attribute the result, but one of them is that there was just one person that actually felt truly more authentic. Even if you disagreed with 99% of the things that came out of his mouth, it was more honestly who he was and that we're moving away from these sort of more scripted form of leadership. Do you feel like that's true or do you feel like, does that feel comfortable for you?
Seane: It's very interesting because it's the product of reality shows right now and there is something that's powerful and seductive about being able to relate to someone. Obviously, there's a craving for authenticity, but we have to re-frame now what that looks like and how it is modeled and politicians have been fraught with that veil, that mask, playing both sides. And obviously that no longer works. So we went to this extreme and I think that there is something very positive about it because now we see this naturalness that's happening now amongst politicians and amongst even newscasters, people dropping f-bombs, things that are ... Even me who's like chronic swearer, even me for, so a little bit, I want authenticity but ...
Jeff: But, hey, come on.
Seane: You know, not that much and so there's, again, there's this sea change that's happening that needed to happen and maybe we'll find some balance at some point. As much bad that I will say that Trump did, again, looking at it from a spiritual perspective, there is a lot of value to what has happened and how it is forcing people to have to wake up and to also look at their own inner Trump and take some accountability for it. It's a very interesting time that way for people to say, well, if I want authenticity then I'm going to have to be authentic within myself. It's easier to demand authenticity pointing it outward but if we're not connecting to the places where we are absolutely within that shadow, why would we expect anything different? So we're being invited now to pay attention to all of our own bigotry and prejudice and xenophobia 'cause it exists within us.
This is the gift that I've gotten. The word that I work with now more than ever within my own leadership is accountability. Like, I will not tell someone else what they should do, say, or behave without turning that back on myself and saying where am I racist and sexist and homophobic and trans phobic and xenophobic and where do I practice deliberately bias and discrimination and bigotry? I know it exists. It has to because as a white woman of privilege, raised in an environment that was white, in a school that was white, in a religion that is white, all of that has infiltrated itself on my cells, it has informed the way in which I experience and see the world, and it might not be overt, but I promise you put me in a situation where I am overwhelmed, tired, scared, and my rational brain turns off and my primal brain turns on, then the messages in my body that are designed to separate, that I inherited, that will come out in passive aggressive ways, microaggressions, but it will come out.
I need to know this. I need to anticipate it. I need to normalize this because I cannot be effective in my leadership and I can't tell someone else to look at the subtleties within their own whatever the ism is, until I know in my own body, like, oh, that's how this works. So, accountability for me in leadership right now is key.
and if there's anything I can say to people who are listening is that if there is any part of them that feels called to leadership, to know that to answer that particular call, even if it's the most, the tiniest of ways, meaning the way in which you parent your children, going into the school system like as in the PTA and just contributing that what we need are ordinary human begins, ordinary citizens who are not sitting by passively allowing our leadership to determine our happiness, that all of our bodies matter, all of our thoughts count, and all of our actions can actually make a difference and so that's what I'm interested in seeing people develop that confidence to know that they can actually move this needle.
Jeff: So, now it's time for our community to step in to their personal leadership and not be quiet.
Seane: No. No. We can't. Too many lives are at stake and like I said, especially for someone in my own position, how dare I not?
Jeff: Be sure to check out our course Redefining Leadership, now open for free sign ups at one commune.com. And if you enjoyed this, or any of our other episodes, share the show with a friend, or leave us a five-star review.
Thanks for listening to the Commune podcast, I’m your host Jeff Krasno, and I’ll seeya next time.